Ben Clanton is a gifted artist, author, and one of my trusty critique partners. After touring his studio, getting personal doodles at a book signing, and showing Ben our backyard chickens, my kids are smitten with Ben and his books. It’s safe to say that the entire Call household is filled with Ben Clanton fans. It’s a privilege to interview him for Writers’ Rumpus.
Kirsti Call: Did you always know that you wanted to be an author/illustrator?
Ben Clanton: I loved drawing and making cartoons as a kid but it never really struck me that it was something you could actually do as a job. I had much more practical careers in mind like professional basketball, being the next Albert Einstein, and/or becoming President of the United States. It wasn’t until college that I first got it in my mind that I would like to write a children’s book. And it was then awhile after that when I realized I also wanted to make the pictures for them.
KC: Of your published books, which is your favorite and why?
BC: Always the next one! I actually find it kind of painful to look at my completed and
printed books. There are always so many things I want to change.The books in my head always look so much better. Too bad I’m the only one who can see them. Growing pains! That said, of my published books, Something Extraordinary
is probably nearest to my heart. It is autobiographical in a way. The wishes in it are all wishes I wish. And the conclusion of the book was inspired by a real life event. When I was six my family lived in Portland, OR. One day when I was playing outside I noticed a brightly colored parrot in a nearby tree. It flew down and landed on me. The parrot ended up living with my family for several months before we found a home for it. It was extraordinary! I then had a not dissimilar experience when working on the book. I had stepped outside for a brief break and came across a little goldfinch. I’ve always been fond of birds and goldfinches are one of my favorites. Well, the little goldfinch decided to land on my hand and hang out for a bit. Eventually I moved over to a tree and it hopped onto a branch. Having moments like that attached to the book definitely help carve it a special place for me.
BC: The parrot definitely played a big part in informing how the visual narrative would play out in Something Extraordinary, but that isn’t what inspired me to write the book. I was inspired to write it one day when I was headed to Pioneer Square in Seattle to meet with some critique group pals (The Whatsits). It started to rain just before I got to the lightrail and I was thinking about how great it would be if the rain came in all sorts of colors. And what if it was flavored? And this image of a boy standing arms open in colorful and tasty rain came into my head. So on the train I drew a quick sketch of it and then I soon found that flowed into another wish and another image. I remember feeling compelled by the images but also frustrated by them. I desperately wished that these things weren’t just in my head. The wishes in the book are the sorts of things I often find myself daydreaming about and the boy’s dissatisfaction with them not being possible is something I’ve frequently felt. But then there are moments when I’m reminded just how extraordinary this world we live in is . . . especially when I watch documentaries about the ocean. Or when a bird lands on me!
KC: Do you have a schedule for your writing and illustrating?
Sometimes! Depends on how close I am to a deadline. I usually work oodles and oodles the month before a deadline. But on a day when I’m not feeling anxious about getting work done, I usually wake up around 8, take things slow for the first hour and a bit, do some work, go for a long walk with my dog, do more drawing and writing in the afternoon, play basketball, work a bit more, make dinner, walk, and spend the evening relaxing by watching a movie or drawing. But this is a very loose schedule. I find that often my best ideas show up unexpectedly and often at 2 in the morning.
KC: What is your favorite part of being an author/illustrator?
BC: That is a tough one. I’d say school visits. I love interacting with the kids, drawing for them, reading them my stories, telling bad jokes that they think are hilarious, and getting loads of letters and pictures from them afterwards. School visits always give me quite the confidence boost too. The kids are always so impressed by my drawings. It really puts things in perspective.
KC: What is your least favorite part of being an author/illustrator?
BC: FINAL ART, or as I often refer to them, FARTS. I think the word ‘final’ is particularly scary. Once it is done and submitted that is it. There are no take backs. Unless you’re Eric Carle and end up redoing the book four times over your lifetime (The Very Hungry Caterpillar). It is tough because I want the artwork to look polished but also to maintain a degree of the life and energy of the sketches. There is a delicate balance between loose and polished that I struggle with every time. I much prefer the beginning stages of working on a book.
KC: We love Mo’s Mustache at our house. How did you come up with the idea for that story?
BC: Thanks!! I came up with Mo’s Mustache while working in Seattle, WA at an after-school program. I’d often wear fake mustaches and try to convince the kids that they were real mustaches. Often the kids would try to rip them off (always a good game), but one time one of the boys decided to make his own. And then the next thing I knew several of the kids were sporting mustaches. The next day I drew a comic for the kids (another common occurrence) about a monster and his mustache. That comic became Mo’s Mustache!
KC: What other projects are you working on?
BC: I’ve got several books in the works that I’m really excited about. One of the ones I just finished up is about a boy and his wish to get something in the mail (a sort of companion to Something Extraordinary). It is full of pigs, pickles, blueberries, and all sorts of things! This summer I will be illustrating a graphic novel for the 7 to 9 range about a narwhal and a jellyfish. I love the characters and it is fun to be shaking up format.
KC: What advice would you give aspiring authors and illustrators?
BC: First off, join SCBWI! And don’t just join but consume the various materials they provide and take advantage of the conferences and workshops SCBWI puts on. Secondly, READ children’s books! Loads of them. Also, work at it. I realize it can be hard to find the time to write and draw. If you really want to be published and you love making up stories then you’ve got to make it a priority. Just as with anything practice makes a difference. But it isn’t enough to work on your craft alone. Join a critique group or two. Get feedback on your work and if possible get some of that feedback from kids. KEEP AT IT! It can take quite some time to get published and lots of rejections. It can be discouraging, but if you really want to write and/or illustrate then stick with it.
Ben Clanton is a story-scribbler, picture-squiggler, book aficionado, child advocate, dragon tamer (someday), and avid sock wearer (especially of the striped variety). He has spent most of his time on this planet reading, drawing, sleeping, gardening and eating chocolate. He lives next to a pond in an old brick mill with his wife, Kelsey (a photographer and designer!), and a wild golden doodle named Gigi.